I recently wrote a blog about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now being used by the exploration side of the mining industry. My curiosity was whether the application of AI is going to be real or is it just being used as a buzzword to help promote companies. You can read that blog at this link “AI vs The Geologists”.
With the topic of buzzwords in mind, I was curious about some of other technology advances we hear about. Coincidentally Canadian Mining Magazine (Winter 2019 issue) published two articles on upcoming technologies, the links are provided here; blockchain and robotic process automation. As with AI, I’m still curious about these two, mainly due to the limited number of applications thus far.

Blockchain for supply chain

With regards to blockchain, it seems to me the main benefits are being related to supply chains, whether for purchasing or selling activities. Some of the examples given are that one can verify where the cobalt in your phone was mined or where your engagement diamond is from. Oddly though, I don’t recall ever wanting to know where the metal in my phone is from.
Other example applications of blockchain are for inventory management, shipment number tracking, transport log tracking, and bill of lading management. The advantages are transaction speed, trust, and traceability.
Currently there are many ways shipping and receiving activities are being tracked. Hence I am a bit unclear as to where blockchain will provide a groundbreaking improvement. Can’t well designed cloud database achieve the same thing?
Blockchain reportedly has improved security in that copies of its tracking “ledgers” are simultaneously hosted on multiple servers and hence are hack-proof.
Is blockchain over-hyped?  Here’s an article that seems to think so “5 challenges to getting projects off the ground”.
Thus far in my career I have not yet had any direct experience with a real life application of blockchain. Therefore it is a bit difficult to say whether it is a great business innovation or a great business promotion. Perhaps some of you have had experience with actual blockchain applications in the mining industry. Please let me know and I will follow up. So far I am still on the fence.
On the other hand…

Robotic Process Automation

We have seen in manufacturing that robotics will eliminate repetitive type jobs. Will robotic process automation (rPA) be able to do the same by completing repetitive tasks for us?
The types of tasks being targeted for rPA are real time data analysis, daily- weekly-monthly reporting, tracking real time costs and progress schedules, or in other words, monitoring system wide process inputs and outputs.
Having access to real time data is important and it is a growing trend worldwide in all industries. In my view, mine site wide data integration is a key to the future of mining, especially when combined with AI, data mining, and data analysis. It is great to have the ability to instantly know exactly what is going on everywhere at a mine site. It is also great to know what went on in the previous hour, 24 hours, or 30 days.
Modern sensor technology is such that almost anything can be monitored now in real time. Will an action in one part of the operation trigger an impending impact in another part of the operation? For example can a large blast in the pit result in excess vibrations leading to tailings dam creep at the same time and is someone monitoring something this simultaneously? There are many action-reaction type events that occur in a mining operation, each with operational or cost impact. Only technology is able to instantly monitor all of these activities, assess their impacts, and provide quick decisions.
Collecting hoards of data from a site wide sensor network creates a dilemma in what to do with all the data collected. Smart cities are running into this issue. Who can sort through the data, decide what is important and what is noise, then summarize the data and report on it in real time? A human cannot deal with the amount of data being collected in such networks.
I have seen companies use fleet dispatch systems to collect gigabytes of data but then have difficulty in analyzing and making sense of it all. Sometimes the dispatch data is simply used to produce a month end production report. This is one example of where process automation may play a bigger role.
I don’t see repetitive process automation eliminating many jobs. Rather it may even increase the jobs needed to maintain and operate the virtual networks. Employment aside, I see the benefit of rPA is having a better understanding of the functioning organism called a mining operating. An operation is essentially an organism with lots of moving parts constantly making decisions requiring emotional intelligence.

Conclusion

Regarding the two technologies discussed in this blog, I personally feel robotic process automation will have far greater impact on mining industry future and its profitability.
For many years we have already seen some application of this technology (i.e. just in the mine or just in the plant). With improving sensors, increased computing power, AI, and cloud data storage, I feel that site wide integrated robotic process automation will lead the way.
However the clouds on the horizon may be the high cost of implementation, the risk of hacking (read https://kuchling.com/66-cyber-security-coming-to-a-mine-near-you), and the fact that different vendors may use different data protocols making system wide integration extremely difficult.
In my view blockchain has not yet made the case for itself. No doubt I need more education on blockchain but that will hopefully come naturally as some real life applications are introduced into our daily activities.  Read the Canadian Mining Magazine articles linked to above and see what you think the future holds for mining.
For those interested in remote tailings dam monitoring,here is an interesting CIM article “The internet of tailings“.
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2 thoughts on “63. Blockchain vs Robotic Process Automation

  1. William Mracek

    Many years ago (1975) I was driving track drift at the Black Angel Mine, in Greenland. The contractor I was working for wanted to replace our jacklegs with a jumbo, but I was against it. Why you ask would I be against new technology that would make my job easier? Well because they also planned to cut our bonus for the same reason. Back then I was not in favour of new technology. But time and responsibilities change.

    Several decades ago as a Mine Superintendent I worked for Falconbridge, where new technology was always welcomed. They, along with Noranda were leaders in automation for Canadian mines. The big problem with underground mines was to find a way to move large amounts of data to enable real time monitoring and control. It was feasible for fixed installations like crushers or trams but not robust enough for drills or loaders. I visited the Kiruna mine in N Sweden, who were world leaders back then to see how they were mastering automation. They had developed methods for scooptrams and longhole drills to be operated tele-remotely, but not fully automated.

    I implemented the first dispatch system in underground operations in Canada with real time data on scooptram loads and tram times. Back then we used an average bucket load based on total reported buckets and tonnes hoisted. We were breaking axles like crazy and couldn’t understand why until we saw the variation in load size. Yes, the average was less than the machine’s carrying capability but the variation was +200% -100%. No wonder axles were breaking! So yes, real time data is extremely valuable to understanding a process.

    I was always puzzled by the lack of automation in open pit mines, where radio communication is much easier than underground. Only now are mines beginning to automate loaders and trucks, although the technology was available 20 years ago. I guess open pit miners tend to be conservative at implementing technology. Some mines still don’t have dispatch systems, although in my experience they can improve truck productivity by 10%, meaning one out of every 10 trucks is no longer necessary, resulting in huge operating savings along with reduced capital requirement.

    One should not be complacent about real time data though. The best real time data is when pit management (and engineering) actually spend time on a truck or a shovel to see things the way the operator sees them. Many nagging problems would be solved if managers simply watched the work and understood it through the operator’s eyes instead of a video terminal.

    So yes, I believe in automation because I’ve seen the benefits. But I also believe in understanding the work in the workplace and no amount of data can ever be as valuable.

  2. Ken Kuchling Post author

    Thanks for the interesting comments. I agree with your point about spending time on a shovel or truck. I recall doing time studies early on where I would spend the day timing and charting loading activities. At Syncrude I spent a lot of time sitting next to the dragline operators learning the nuances of how the machine likes to be positioned and operated. All of these help understand how things really work and it helps in practical mine planning. It also helps know what data being collected is important and what isn’t.

    Real time data needs to be analysed in real time and not left until the monthly summary report. However real time data monitoring / analysis takes a lot of brain power and that’s were AI and computers can shine.

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